Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English witch trials might seem an unlikely place for a Victorianist to open her study of legal advocacy. Christine Krueger makes a strong case, however, for the role of both breadth and depth in this erudite and expansive book. She reaches both synchronically and diachronically to bolster her argument with insights from history, legal studies, and literary studies, and reads literature and the law as interdependent. Her interdisciplinarity and broadly informed argumentation fleshes out storytelling in the public domain and the courtroom to better evaluate strategies for gender advocacy. Focusing on legal frameworks of precedent (thus the turn to the long history of witchcraft trials), agency, testimony, and motive, Krueger locates forms of gender advocacy which only become evident when this range of fields is brought to bear on one another. Indeed, so rich is the argument that I can only touch upon some of its key points here.
Beginning with the witchcraft trials, Krueger argues that “the more intent legal authorities were to convict women of witchcraft, the more they authorized female legal authority”(67), inviting women into the courtroom as a crucial voices. This isn’t the key to gender advocacy, however, according to Krueger. She argues that compelling men to imagine themselves subject to the same kinds of anomalous evidence created the legal and social shift (72)—indeed, this is part of the reason she is so keen to establish that women didn’t exclusively fall victim to such charges. She reads the evolution of historical literary realism (like Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Lois the Witch”) as a response to “the very pressures so strikingly manifest in the witchcraft trials and their legacy, namely conflicts among cultures of evidence” (96). Literature, by discrediting the spurious evidence deployed in witchcraft trials, as well as grappling with the vexing truths and trauma, played a role in legal history.
Krueger then moves forward into the eighteenth century and to questions of legal agency. Here, she discusses the “Reasonable Person” standard offered in Mary Wollstonecraft’s fiction—an alternative to the “Reasonable Man” standard that reigned in court. Krueger argues that the “flawed” novel, Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman (published posthumously in 1798), brings unreported wrongs to “a jury” of both male and female readers in “an experience of [Habermasian] intersubjective communication” (113). By virtue of its form, the novel could “[stage] the contest between public modes of representing subjectivity and private subjective experience to demonstrate the logical difficulties produced by medical and legal definitions of insanity and to expose their mercenary interests” (117).
To explore legal agency, Krueger next engages nineteenth-century texts, lunacy, and lunacy reform. It is here that her expertise in the nineteenth century makes for an especially engaging book. In these chapters, she argues that the marriage and property laws before the 1880s made women more vulnerable to wrongful lunacy incarceration—deployed primarily to seize control of women’s wealth. Here, too, she contends that literary advocacy had to make such concerns relevant to men. She particularly examines Charles Reade’s Hard Cash (1863) and the incarceration of women like Rosina Bulwer Lytton. Krueger indicates that both literary advocacy in novels and journalism drove a series of reforms, emphasizing that it was “shrewd” to avoid feminist advocacy, and to focus instead on economic abuses to which men were liable as well as women (152).
We have failed to trace such patterns of advocacy in the past, according to Krueger, because our attention to canonical literature with high aesthetic appeal has rendered us blind to much literary advocacy. Tracing a “polarization” of legal discourse and aesthetic discourse (159) in her section on testimony, she demonstrates that canonical fiction like Felix Holt (1866) bids for “aesthetic disengagement with political institutions and substitutes for legal recognition the consolations of sentimental domesticity” (172). Most canonical literature and the law, she notes, “enforce gender hierarchies” (185). For this reason, she turns to literature that has been classified as “aesthetically flawed” to find a model for legal advocacy. Reading “sensational” texts like Charles Reade’s Griffith Gaunt (1866), we can uncover “a strategic plan to disseminate legal advice” (192). Krueger also examines Phineas Redux (1873), and again points to the ways in which the effective strategies tend to be those that reveal men’s vulnerabilities to the threat. This novel, she argues, “suggests how the exclusion of common voices from legal proceedings by the consolidation of a professional legal monopoly becomes a jurisprudential axiom that silences even the male elite” (195).
In one of the book’s most intriguing sections, she considers motive, suggesting that “more enabling, democratic options existed even in Victorian popular culture” (187). Krueger places an investigation of Georgina Weldon’s legal self-representation alongside a study of Mary Carpenter’s advocacy for the “juvenile offender.” She notes that while Carpenter increasingly humanized and engaged public sympathy for the poor child and for reform, as opposed to punishment, the best strategy in the courts might not have always been forensic or literary eloquence. She explains that silencing might be in a plaintiff’s best interest, especially in infanticide, which might be both rational (for example, a woman who murders her children to protect them from abuses of father or from the ravages of poverty) and criminal. Placing infanticide outside the law—in the same way, she notes, that “privacy” has been the point from which to argue abortion rights today—is a theme that appears in William Wordsworth’s “The Thorn” (1798), Walter Scott’s Heart of the Midlothian (1818), and George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859).
In her final section, she points to the ways that literary “history can alert us to a form of narrative advocacy that depends not upon securing legal recognition, but upon deploying convincing cover stories” (236), particularly as this is related to vexed legislation. There are some criminal acts for which literary advocacy can provide stories “that protected an extralegal space for criminalized subjectivities” (239). She points out that Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm (1861-62) sees justice served not by publicity, but by “gentleman’s agreements [in] trial by jury,” permitting a forger to go free on a lesser charge (240). Similarly, she explores sodomy trials in which the jury of gentlemanly peers might have fostered their own sense of security in the law by protecting other men.
Throughout the book, Krueger shuttles with care and precision across a wide range of complex texts and weaves a tight argument. This will make her book enormously useful to people in a variety of fields. It is this very ambitiousness, one which I applaud and to which more scholars trained in literary studies should aspire, that also creates its weaknesses. Krueger often fails to define legal terms, concepts, and movements—perhaps because she became so steeped in them to write the book—and this may occasionally challenge an audience that does not have her experience with the language. Perhaps inevitably in such a broad-ranging study, there are areas that do not attend to important groundwork that has already been laid, particularly, for example, on the less canonical fiction she argues offers salient forms of advocacy. Krueger leaves excellent work on sensation, public opinion, and the law (like Lisa Surridge’s Bleak Houses and Andrew Mangham’s Violent Women and Sensation Fiction) unmined.
Ultimately, however, the study is an important one, with insights that will benefit a wide range of readers. As discouraging as is the claim that women gain the most ground when they appeal to men’s self interest, Krueger makes a compelling case that is well worth the read.
Marlene Tromp is Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Denison University. She is the author of Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs, and Self-Transformation in Victorian Spiritualism (SUNY, 2006) and The Private Rod: Sexual Violence, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England (UP Virginia, 2000). She has also edited or co-edited and contributed to Fear and Loathing: Victorian Xenophobia (Ohio State UP, forthcoming), Victorian Freaks: The Social Context of Freakery in the Nineteenth Century (Ohio State UP, 2007), and Mary Elizabeth Braddon: Beyond Sensation (SUNY 2000). She has another new book under review: Force of Habit: Life and Death on the Titanic.